N.C. State is the same team it was 17 days ago, same players, same talent. There’s one significant difference.
“Confidence,” senior shortstop Logan Ratledge said without hesitation.
That’s what a nine-game winning streak will do for a team. The Wolfpack (30-18, 14-12 ACC) has put itself in position for the postseason with its recent hot streak.
“When you get in a winning mode, it’s the only thing anyone can think about it,” Ratledge said.
Now the Wolfpack faces its toughest challenge of the season in No. 3 Louisville (40-13, 23-4). The Cardinals, who will play a three-game series in Raleigh starting Thursday, have wrapped up the No. 1 seed for the ACC tournament next week in Durham.
No stranger to success with back-to-back College World Series trips and three in the previous eight years, the Cards have run roughshod over the rest of the ACC in their first year in the conference.
Since the first wave of expansion in 2005, no team has won more than 24 conference games, and the Cards are on pace for the best winning percentage since Florida State went 22-2 in 1999.
“Nobody dominates this league,” said N.C. State coach Elliott Avent, in his 19th season. “You go 21-9 and you had a good year. To do what they’re doing, you just shake your head.”
Louisville has a history to aim for while N.C. State is still polishing its postseason resume. At 14-12 in the conference, the Wolfpack sits at fifth in the ACC tournament. The top six seeds are guaranteed a spot in pool play, which is where the Wolfpack wants to be. The bottom four seeds have to advance through a play-in round Tuesday.
N.C. State is one of seven teams separated by two wins headed into the last series of conference play. Even one win over Louisville would be important in tie-breaking scenarios for the Wolfpack.
It was close calls against Florida State, No. 4 in the RPI, and UNC, No. 20, that helped keep the Wolfpack going when hope seemed lost, Ratledge said.
Before the winning streak, N.C. State had lost nine of 12, and five came by one run.
“Most teams would probably fall apart during that stretch,” Avent said.
But, Ratledge said, after losing 3-2 and 1-0 to Florida State and 2-1 and 3-2 to the Tar Heels in April the Wolfpack realized how close it really was.
“We know we made mistakes, and it was just a break here or there,” Ratledge said. “Then we got Bubby’s home run and, since then, everything’s kind of fallen into place.”
That would be senior Bubby Riley’s walk-off home run to beat Virginia 4-3 in the first game of a doubleheader on April 26. The Wolfpack won the second game on freshman Joe Dunand’s walk-off homer in the 10th inning.
Sweeps of Longwood and Wake Forest, sandwiched around a 9-5 home win over Campbell followed.
With a rough April behind them, and a difficult challenge in front of them, the Wolfpack still has a chance and that’s all Ratledge wants.
“We feel really good about how we’re playing,” he said. “I’m sure they do, too. It’s going to be a fun series.”
Pair of aces
▪ Kyle Funkhouser is Louisville’s right-handed version of former Pack star Carlos Rodon. He led the Cards to the College World Series last year, then emerged as Team USA’s ace during the summer. Now a junior, Funkhouser is projected as a top 10 overall pick in the June draft.
▪ Brendan McKay is Louisville’s version of Mark Kotsay. McKay, a freshman, is being crowned college baseball’s best two-way player. As a hitter, he bats fourth. He also leads the Cards with an 8-1 record and 1.65 ERA.
Schedule: Thursday: 6 p.m.; Friday: 6:30 p.m.; Saturday: 1 p.m.